Penn: The DPJ Victory and Japanese-Islamic Relations

Michael Penn writes in a guest op-ed for IC:

The thumping victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the Japanese general elections is going to have a strong influence on the future of Japan’s relations with the Islamic world. The DPJ has pledged to make the US-Japan alliance an “equal partnership,” by which they appear to mean that they will no longer be content to quietly accept foreign policy directions from Washington.

That said, the DPJ is a moderate party that believes in the importance of the US-Japan alliance, so long as it begins to function differently. DPJ leaders wish to make up their own minds about Japanese interests and then work with their American partners toward mutually beneficial solutions. Although this sounds like common sense, the reality of recent years has been that the Japanese government has consistently allowed US policymakers to determine the direction of Japanese foreign policy out of their paralyzing fear—encouraged by certain US officials and commentators—that any Japanese refusal on a major issue could lead to a weakening of the American commitment to guarantee Japan’s security in East Asia.

For Japan’s relations with Islamic countries, this has meant that Tokyo has been almost entirely unwilling to stand up to Washington on any issue of significance. Regarding Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan or Pakistan or the Arab-Israeli conflict, recent Japanese governments have repeatedly buckled under to pressure from the United States even in cases in which Japanese officials privately disagreed or had longstanding commitments to other parties. Frankly, it has been a sorry performance.

The new DPJ government—especially if they form a coalition with the tiny Social Democratic Party (SDP)—can be expected to be more assertive in making their own judgments and then stick to them. They will, of course, always take into account the views of their US allies, but now Tokyo will be marginally more willing to say “no” to Washington’s demands.

Another characteristic of the new government will be that they will much prefer to send Japanese civilian support for the benefit of US campaigns rather than leading with the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), as has been the case since September 11. The naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean is likely to be wrapped up by the end of this year. At the same time, the new government will try to send unarmed Japanese officials to Afghanistan in an attempt to engage in peace-building. This, in fact, is probably going to be one of the first major foreign policy initiatives of the incoming Hatoyama administration.

As for Iraq, there is not really anything that the new government needs to change at the moment. The SDF missions were completed at the end of 2008, and the focus now is on obtaining development rights to Iraqi oil and gas. The latest reports suggest that Japanese companies will do very well, especially if the consortium led by the Nippon Oil Corporation gains rights to the massive Nasiriya field, which now appears imminent.

The future of Japan’s policy toward the Arab-Israeli peace process is murkier, because everything depends on the Obama administration’s policies as well as political developments in the region. Currently, Japan is a crucial financial donor to Palestinian refugees, but has simply followed behind the United States in terms of diplomatic policy. (In the 1970s and 1980s, Tokyo used to have a policy on this issue that was clearly distinct from the preferences of the United States.) It is yet unclear if the DPJ has any ambitions in this sphere—they seem much more interested in Afghanistan.

Japanese warships are also operating off the Horn of Africa and the SDF has established an overseas base in Djibouti. These forces are operating, of course, as part of international efforts to reduce the threat of Somali piracy. The DPJ has not indicated what they intend to do, but a safe bet is that they will quietly continue the Somalia mission for the time being. Perhaps they may try to become more involved in internal Somalian peace negotiations, but that too remains to be seen.

Overall, it can be said that Japan has definitely entered a new era. Even the protagonists themselves have little idea where it will lead. The only question that has been resolved is the question of whether or not Japan ever really changes. Japanese voters have now answered that question with a resounding “yes”!

Michael Penn
Executive Director
Shingetsu Institute

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